Friday, June 13, 2008

Of mustard, mulberries, and mountains

By John D Ramsey

The neighbor’s mulberry tree overhangs the corner of my back yard. Last night I was walking in the yard and looking up through the branches and then down at the mess on the ground, I imagined what my yard would look like without mulberries. Jesus must not have liked mulberries, either. When the disciples came to Jesus and demanded, “Increase our faith!” Jesus told them that they were missing the point. He said, “If you had faith like a mustard seed, you would say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and be planted in the sea’; and it would obey you.” [1] Jesus was not beating around the mulberry; he was telling his disciples that they completely lacked faith. If they had faith, any faith, they could uproot the mulberry and replant it in the sea. The disciples said they wanted to increase their faith, and Jesus rebuked them gently, saying that the solution to their problem was not proportional; rather the solution to their problem was binary: they had none and they needed some – just a speck of faith would do.

This was not the only instance where the disciples lacked faith. In Mark 4, after Jesus calmed the sea, he asked his disciples, “Why are you afraid? Do you still have no faith?” [2]

A survey of Scripture verses speaking about faith finds very few instances that seem to compare faith quantitatively. Jesus uses “faith as a mustard seed” twice, but other comparisons are subjective and qualitative (small and great). In Matthew 21, after Jesus cursed the fig tree and it withered, the disciples marveled. Jesus again explained to them that they had no faith. He said,

Truly I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what was done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, “Be taken up and cast into the sea,” it will happen. And all things you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive. [3]

If our faith is complete, we will not doubt, but eliminating doubt is not the same as having faith. Some teach that faith is something like the “force” in Star Wars. If it was, we might see mulberries and mountains flying through the air by our command. Faith to these false teachers is something they must muster (or mustard). They teach that if we could just vanquish all doubt then we will get whatever we want. Nevertheless, vanquishing doubt in hope of a specific outcome is not faith. Rather, it is self-deception. We can sing, “I believe I can fly” as much as we want. If we believe that we can defy gravity, then gravity will defy our belief. The truth will prevail.

Believing a lie is a horrible kind of faith to claim. Eve believed a lie, and thereby brought sin into the world. (2 Corinthians 11:3) It did not matter that she believed the serpent; her belief accomplished nothing besides grief.

True faith does not come from within us, nor is faith an intangible universal force into which we tap. We cannot increase our faith, nor can we harness faith to work our will. Paul told the Romans, “For through the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think more highly of himself than he ought to think; but to think so as to have sound judgment, as God has allotted to each a measure of faith.” [4] We should not deceive ourselves into thinking we are more than we are; we are to have “sound judgment.” Moreover, “God has allotted to each a measure of faith.” What faith we have comes from God and by his will. We are to act accordingly, and we are to treat each other appropriately – understanding that God gives to each their measure of faith. Paul wrote to the Ephesians saying,

For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them. [5]

Our salvation comes by grace through faith, yet not even the faith to receive salvation comes from within us; rather the ability to trust God is itself a gift of God. It begins and ends with God. The faith that God gives us accomplishes his works that he prepared for us.

When the father of a demonized young man brought his son to Jesus, the man pleaded, “If you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.” Jesus asked the man, “If you can?” Jesus was implying, What to you mean, ‘if I can?’ Of course, I can. Jesus then went on to say, “Everything is possible for him who believes.” [6]

Was Jesus requiring the man to believe, or was Jesus saying that he, himself, could do all things? It does not matter how you answer that question because the man’s response projected full dependency upon Jesus, regardless. The man answered, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” The man could not muster faith to believe, so he pleaded with Jesus to help his unbelief. Faith is dependent upon Jesus Christ. Faith itself is a gift of God; only he can supply it.

In the Old Testament, Elijah and the prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18 illustrate the difference between real and false faith. The prophets of Baal cried out all day to their god send fire to consume their sacrifice. They cut themselves with swords and spears, but Baal did not answer. Elijah then prepared his sacrifice. He had the people drench it with water to preclude any suspicion of trickery. Then he called upon the name of the Lord, and fire fell from heaven and consumed the sacrifice. The prophets of Baal thought they if could muster enough faith, their god would answer with fire. Elijah, on the other hand, was confident. He was confident because he knew what God was doing. His confidence was in God, and not in himself. Elijah did not force God to answer. God worked through Elijah to display His power before all the people.

One of the names of Baal in the Old Testament is “Baal-Zebub”, which means “lord of the flies.” Beelzebub in the New Testament is a name for Satan. The prophets of Baal thought that they could arouse their god to action. They thought that they had the ability to persuade Baal. Their worship was about human effort. They slashed themselves until their blood flowed, but all that answered them were the swarms of flies. Satan wants us to believe in ourselves. That was the lie by which the serpent deceived Eve in the Garden of Eden (“You will be like God” Genesis 3:4). God, on the other hand, wants us to trust in Him.

Faith, then, trusts God to do what He desires to do. He does not always do what we want him to do. If we trust him to do what he does not will to do, then we cannot mustard enough faith to move him. If our faith is to see results, then we must first know what God is doing. Many false teachers use convoluted logic to say that God does what we want him to do. Many others teach that God has left the planet, and put us in charge giving us special power called faith to do our will. When outcomes fail to meet expectations then they tell us sadly that we lacked sufficient faith. They say, “Next time, pray harder.” The prophets of Baal prayed harder and harder, but Elijah prayed just once! Faith is not something we muster; Jesus said it only takes faith as a mustard seed to cast a mountain into the sea!

Yet real faith must acknowledge that God’s wisdom is higher than our own. His understanding is greater than our own. His desires may be different from our own desires. If we are to pray in faith, we need to spend time with him to understand his will regarding the present circumstances. We should pray, “Lord, I know you can do all things. Help my unbelief. Give me eyes to see what you are doing so that I may pray according to your will. Not my will, but yours be done.”

When we begin to understand faith, we see that faith is not the means by which we move God. Rather faith is the means by which God moves us. When he gives us the gift of faith then “we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.” Faith moves us; it does not move God. Faith moves us first to trust God, and then faith moves us to let God work his will through us. God has already prepared good works for us. Faith aligns our hearts to do God’s will. When we have from God, faith even as a mustard seed, then we will accomplish His will.

Faith accomplishes God's will, not my own. It does not matter how badly I want my neighbor's mulberry tree uprooted and replanted far away. If God does not want to uproot the mulberry, then I cannot mustard enough faith to move it. Jesus used the mulberry as an illustration probably because it was close by. Nowhere, in the New Testament do we find the Apostles transplanting mulberry trees by faith. Ezekiel 38 prophesies of a day when the mountains will be thrown down. Micah 1 prophesies of the return of Christ saying that the mountains will melt like wax in a fire. I would like to think that this awesome display of God's power will answer the prayers of the faithful. We can certainly pray, "Lord Jesus, come quickly."

Nevertheless, with the measure of faith that God has apportioned to me today, I will walk in the good works which he has prepared for me today. My faith does not move God; rather, the faith that he gives me moves me ever closer to him until I depart or he returns. Until then, the faith which he has given me, assures me of an eternity with him.


[1] Luke 17:6 (NASB)
[2] Mark 4:40 (NASB)
[3] Matthew 17:20 (NASB)
[4] Romans 12:3 (NASB)
[5] Ephesians 2:8-10 (NASB)
[6] Mark 9:22-24 (NASB)

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